Prototyping a ‘library of the future’

StbotolphsAs traditional libraries continue to close their doors, can a new vision of a library build community and creativity in Colchester?

The value of our public libraries is being called into question against a backdrop of austerity. In an age of digital disruption, we ‘the users’ increasingly expect to become fully-fledged ‘contributors’ to them – not mere passive consumers and, as such, the St Botolph’s community in Colchester is envisioning the library of the future from the ground up.

Our aim is to establish a test-bed for library service transformation and, in particular, to prototype a way forward for both public and community libraries in the context of our increasingly read/write world. Specifically, St Botolph’s Waiting Room in Colchester will test whether we can transform a former bus station waiting room into an integrated library-hack-maker space which can also serve as a multi-media community publishing platform and, with that, underpin a resilient and sustainable future for our libraries.

From bus station waiting room to hack-maker space
The project has its origins in two inter-related strands of activity – brought together as a consequence of work being undertaken by individual members of our community: one concerned with the provision of support to the growing number of community libraries in England, and the other with development of the creative industries and stalled regeneration efforts in the St Botolph’s area of Colchester.

Communities working to assume responsibility for the delivery of library services are faced with: challenging spaces; library assets located in sparsely populated or deprived settings; a requirement to transform a service without an obvious (social) business model; a service that is increasingly dependent upon ICT infrastructure; and a national policy impetus to envision and deliver the ‘library of the future’. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority are preoccupied with the practicalities that ‘getting started’ implies – and, not least, given their reliance upon volunteers in many instances. So, our community is establishing a test-bed to prototype what we hope will be transferable solutions to some of the challenges they face.

At the local level, the project began in earnest with the aim of increasing the supply of workspace for the creative industries in Colchester. It was felt that a vital first step was to develop a co-working space, and a facility was duly established by FirstSite at Fifteen Queen Street. Efforts to increase the supply of workspace for the creative industries also continued beyond the town centre, for example, with the opening of out-of-town facilities such as Cuckoo Farm and the Buffalo Tank. However, local stakeholders were particularly keen to transform the Old Police Station in the St Botolph’s area into intermediate work and studio spaces as something of a step-up facility.Good for Nothing

Progress slowed in the wake of the banking crash, and despite some positive news about resourcing refurbishment of the Old Police Station earlier this year, local creatives were keen to move faster than the wheels of local administration sometimes permit, so they began to look for alternative solutions. The one that emerged could be seen as falling into the category of ‘meanwhile use’, a concept that has gained traction as a reaction to those ‘pauses’ in the development process which can blight areas in need of or undergoing physical regeneration – sometimes for months, sometimes for years. In short, the idea is to ask: what might we do with our built assets ‘in the meanwhile’ – until such time as regeneration recommences in earnest – such that otherwise stranded spaces and places can be put to productive use, and some measure of social and economic value extracted.

Early in 2012, our community identified two ‘hidden kiosks’ integral to Colchester’s former bus station waiting room in St Botolph’s which had been boarded up awaiting demolition in keeping with the master-plan for the area – ideal from the point of view of developing meanwhile uses, since those plans were to all intents and purposes ‘on hold’. Representatives from the community sought to move towards the provision of business prototyping and incubation space in direct response to the needs of local creatives, and this resulted in plans to transform the hidden kiosks to offer creative business start-ups a space to ‘try out’ on the basis of short-term, easy-in-easy-out leases.

Discussions with prospective partners about the possibility of animating the Waiting Room in its entirety would soon follow. A project team comprised of representatives from The Creative Coop and Colchester School of Art began to develop the idea of the Waiting Room in greater depth and, in particular, decided to establish the project as a ‘hack/maker’ space.

Hack spaces are informal computer clubs, but a growing number are more akin to organized computer labs and offer AV equipment, access to hardware and games consoles, as well as sometimes benefiting from tool and component libraries. They are most commonly operated on a not-for-private-profit basis and are sustained by an independent community paying membership fees. Making, by contrast, is more broadly related to the ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’. As such, maker-spaces tend to function more akin to ‘community workshops’ and give rise to artisan businesses, as compared with hack-spaces that operate on more of a ‘digital edge’.

The rest is, to some extent, recent history – with a meanwhile  lease secured on behalf of the project by Colchester Institute in summer 2013, and more than 1,500 visitors and volunteers signed up to co-produce components of the space in the intervening period.

OpeningSetting up a Give-Get library
The provision of a hack/maker space and a shared work space remains a major driver for the Waiting Room project. However, another key facet is its library – which is, specifically, a Give-Get library. In short, the idea is to create a multimedia repository for creative contributions from local users, then integrate it with a community publishing and lending platform that is capable of being harnessed for both social and economic benefit.

For example, a contributor might leave their memory of St Botolph’s in the history archive (whether a photograph, a diary or a sound file), whilst another might learn how to edit and remix sound files, and another still might integrate said file with a commercial mobile phone app or amateur film production. In envisioning the library of the future from the ground up, then, our community felt that St Botolph’s Waiting Room should be as much concerned with what users can give as well as get from it.

This, in turn, implies the creation of a platform that is capable of attracting, capturing, curating and sharing local knowledge and know-how for mutual benefit, in keeping with the ethos that has always underpinned more traditional, academic and specialist libraries, but which we feel ought now to be (re)instated where public and community libraries are concerned.

What cannot be emphasized enough is the importance of building upon the fine grain of your community by harnessing the enthusiasm and talents of local people, of giving both stakeholders and the local community a strong voice in shaping the project, of holding regular informal meetings and being unafraid to delegate responsibility and tasks, and of networking and exploiting digital and social media resources to the full. These are the lessons we will take with us as we support other communities to adapt our approach to suit their purposes over the months ahead.

If you’d like to find out more about the project, we’d heartily encourage you to pay us a visit – whether in person or online:

6.waiting room barFive top tips when starting your own hack-maker-library space

  • Build on the fine grain of your community and avoid the cookie-cutter syndrome. By all means be inspired by what’s happening in other communities, but don’t be afraid to learn, adapt their ideas, and apply broad principles your own context.
  • Start small – find a room in a shared space or a building with low overheads and keep your space flexible. This will afford you more room to iterate, allow ideas to emerge and react to the assets you uncover in your community.
  • Avoid duplication and harness the power of partnerships from the outset by establishing a stakeholder group involving local residents, businesses and those working at other social amenities in the immediate area.
  • Get some storage! Once the equipment donations start, you’ll be surprised how fast you’ll be inundated with useful kit!


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